I joined her and we watched events unfold. Eventually, I opened the door and inquired.
Most of our neighbours have lived here for many years, so they all know one another pretty well. There is a genuine sense of community and responsibility towards one another that is summed up in the word “neighbourliness”. Some may prefer to call it “nosiness”. It involves people who live close to one another taking an interest in each other’s doings, and though you may not notice it, you are actually constantly being watched.
In the past, as the families grew and the children played together, there was a bonding of parents with similar or shared problems and experiences. Most of those children are now grown up and have moved away, but the bonds are unbroken. People care about one another in this road. There have been bereavements, too, which bring neighbours together as they empathise in their widowhood.
As we all age, we are all aware of who suffers from what ailment, and as you walk up or down the road the greeting is not only “Hello, how are you?” but: “How’s your leg / back / arm / eye?” And the sometimes lengthy replies are listened to with patience and sympathy.
Harry is a skinny little man, an elderly widower, childless, rather grumpy and at loggerheads with his family. He lives over the road, all alone since his little dog died last year. He is hard of hearing and has very low vision, but is defiantly independent and loath to accept help. We know that he doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.
His demarcation lines are clearly drawn. If he needs a lift in a neighbour’s car, he’ll accept but he always pays the petrol money. He follows a fairly regular routine, going to the shops every morning for a few items, which replaces the daily walk he used to take with his dog.
At the beginning of March, my attention was drawn to a police car outside Harry’s house. Several neighbours were standing outside, so – being curious – I asked what was happening. It turned out that nobody had seen him for over 24 hours.
This is where our neighbourhood watch kicked in. One neighbour had picked up Harry’s medication from the pharmacy, but hadn’t been able to deliver it because he hadn’t opened his door to her. Another had tried to phone him, and then had tried to gain his attention by knocking on his windows. The next-door neighbour who has a spare key in case of an emergency discovered that the locks had been changed, so the key didn’t work. When a fourth tried to phone and there was still no reaction, the police had been summoned.
There was an air of anxiety hanging like a cloud over the small gathering.
The policeman was also unable to get any response so he called the emergency doctor and then, armed with a chisel supplied by one of the neighbours, managed to break in through the back door.
We all waited with bated breath until he emerged a few minutes later through the front door to announce that Harry was alive and had been sleeping peacefully in his bed. There was a loud concerted sigh of relief. Then the doctor came out and reassured us that Harry really was OK, so the group dispersed, the cloud of anxiety replaced by a sunny blue sky.
The follow-up is interesting. Harry thought nobody cared about him, but discovered that his neighbours are also his friends. One down-to-earth, very energetic lady, who has a family of teenagers, immediately added his washing to her own and told him (no arguing!) that she would bring him a dinner every day as long as he was unwell. She also offered to remind him to take his medication morning, noon and evening, and has done his housework for him. Another neighbour pops in to check on him and chauffeurs him to whatever appointments he has. Last week, Harry turned 91. Much to his surprise, he received a number of birthday cards.
But this morning, there was the ambulance outside his house, and two or three neighbours going in and out with the burly paramedics. Harry is very stubborn. He doesn’t want to go to hospital for fear of never coming out. He says he’s reached the end of his life and now it’s time to go, so for the last few days he hasn’t been eating or drinking properly. Weak and dehydrated, he was carried off to hospital in spite of his protestations. The neighbour who chauffeurs him went along, too. “Can’t let him go all alone,” he told me.
Will he come home again? I hope so. In particular, I hope he enjoys his stay in hospital and loses his fear of the place. I hope he will have pretty, friendly nurses making a fuss of him. I hope he feels their compassion and love. I hope he recovers his will to live. But even if he doesn’t it’s heartening to have seen neighbourliness in action, preventing a little old man from starving himself to death, unloved and unmourned.
Good fences may make good neighbours, but fences also need a gate.